Artworks and Artists of Naturalism
The Hay Wain (1821)
This quintessential early work of Naturalist landscape painting depicts a hay-wain - a type of horse-drawn cart - being led across a shallow river by an agricultural worker perched on its back. The horses seem to have paused mid-crossing, as if to better present the scene to the viewer, and as the eye glosses the painting it is drawn inward by the soft curves of the river-banks, invited to linger over various details: the dappled reflections in the water, the foliage of the trees, and the sunlit depths of the field beyond, where a group of haymakers can just about be made out at work.
The landscape is that of East Bergholt in Suffolk, part of an area of south-east England, straddling Suffolk and Essex, now referred to as 'Constable country', in recognition of the artist's rich body of work produced in response to it. It was the landscape of his birth - to a wealthy family of agricultural merchants in 1776 - and, like various other Constable paintings, The Hay Wain depicts an area of land, Flatford Mill, owned by his father Golding Constable. The scene was therefore one familiar from childhood; Constable would later state that "I associate 'my careless boyhood' with all that lies on the banks of the Stour; those scenes made me a painter." Constable would not, however, have painted en plein air - as became the fashion for Naturalist painters - returning to his studio in London to complete this work based on a series of preparatory on-site sketches. Moreover, while the painting focuses on rural labor, in contrast to the work of the Realists - the French painters Gustave Courbet and Jean-François Millet, for example - Constable's emphasis is less on the figure in the hay-wain than on the natural scene enveloping him, indicating one of the key distinctions between the closely associated movements of Realism and Naturalism.
Works such as The Hay Wain were celebrated for presenting an apparently informal snapshot of the natural world while simultaneously drawing out its emotive, poetic qualities: its human dimensions. For this reason, Constable's influence extends over the whole subsequent development of Naturalist painting, particularly in France, where his work was accepted and celebrated much earlier than in his native Britain.
Oil on canvas - National Gallery, London
Sunrise in the Catskills (1826)
This painting offers us a view from a rocky vantage-point overlooking the Catskill Mountains, as early-morning mist rises from the valleys beneath. A precipitous edge, complete with jagged outcrops of rock, fallen trees, and tangled underbrush, frames the foreground, offering a snapshot of untainted American wilderness.
Sunrise in the Catskills is one of the earliest works created by the British-American landscape painter Thomas Cole in response to the landscapes of rural New York State, particularly the areas around the Hudson River Valley. Born in the industrial north-west of England, Cole had immigrated to America as a teenager with his family, and was the first artist to apply the aesthetics of European Romantic landscape painting to the territories of his adopted homeland. This work shows the view from Vly Mountain in the Catskills, a vista endowed with all the splendor of Caspar David Friedrich's Bohemia or Baltic Coast.
This work is the first of Cole's which can be seen as using the techniques of Naturalism to convey the sublime beauty of the American wilderness. It became highly influential, prefiguring Cole's later masterworks, and influencing other North-American painters such as Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt. These and other artists became known as the Hudson River School, a movement that dominated 19th-century American painting, and was a vital element of the broader Naturalist paradigm. Cole, older than most of the Hudson River artists, is often referred to as the 'father' of the school, and the importance of his work to the development of Naturalism in general cannot be overstressed.
Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Art, Washington
View of the Forest of Fontainebleau (1830)
This painting, by the French artist Camille Corot, depicts the rugged terrain of the Forest of Fontainebleau, where the Barbizon School of Naturalist painters had established itself during the 1820s-30s. The great oaks of the forest cast deep shadows across the scene, while the stream is lit up by sunlight in the middle-distance; in the foreground, an artfully arranged young woman reclines on the edge of a deep pool, reading a book.
Born in 1796, Corot had been trained in the Neoclassical traditions of the French Academy, but already, during his first trips to Italy in the 1820s, he had begun to renege on aspects of the sharp Neoclassical style, and to turn away from its thematic emphasis on myth and history. In 1829, he visited the forests around Barbizon, establishing a number of creative friendships with the artists based there, and composing various works of his own in response to the area. This painting is the result of a year's worth of preliminary sketches and oil studies, and was completed in Corot's Paris studio for display at the 1830 Salon. Retaining the vestiges of a Neo-classical aesthetic, he added in the human figure, thought to be Mary Magdalene, whose presence therefore maneuvers the painting into the "historical landscape" category of which the Salon judges would have approved. The real focus of the scene, however, is the lush forest which encloses her: in an important sense, the human form becomes a backdrop, lending a sense of scale to the towering oak trees all around, vibrant with shadow and light.
Corot's work is seen as a bridge between the traditions of Neo-classicism and Impressionism that dominated the early and late 19th centuries respectively within the French art world. In providing this link, Corot also made vital contributions to the tradition of Naturalism, which, in one sense, marks the same fork in the road. He would later be hailed as the 'grandfather' of Impressionism by the artists associated with that movement.
Oil on canvas - National Gallery of Art, Washington
Under the Birches, Evening (1842-43)
Also known as The Priest, this painting by the Barbizon School artist Théodore Rousseau shows a grove of birch trees at sunset, their mottled bark and golden leaves illuminated by the evening light, as they stand circled by the darkness that already shadows the foreground. Beneath the trees a single human figure, presumably the priest referred to in the alternative title, sits reading a book.
Rousseau began painting en plein air during the 1820s, and was a passionate and early advocate of landscape painting, at a time when it was still sidelined by the official tastes of the French Academy. He began making regular visits to the Forest of Fontainebleau from 1833 onwards, integrating himself into the school of Naturalist painters already based there, and in 1848 moved to the area permanently, one of the first artists to do so. This particular painting was created at a low-point in Rousseau's career, following a five-year stretch (1836-41) when every single work which he had sent to the Paris Salon had been rejected. Like all of Rousseau's landscapes, it would have been based on hours on close observation and sketches on site, but what is unique about this piece is the framing of the scene: the grove has no obvious path of entrance or exit, and, surrounded by darkness, the arrangement of trees seems artful to the point of appearing almost theatrical or staged. The influence of 17th-century Dutch landscape painters is evident in the subtle division of the painting into three horizontal bands.
While the image of a solitary figure in a natural landscape might remind us of the Barbizon School's Romantic forebears, this figure seems not so much empowered by the landscape as consumed by it. This impression of the relative insignificance of the human form in relation to the natural scene surrounding it is one of the defining features of Naturalism as compared to Romanticism. Indeed, the Barbizon School arguably exerted a more significant influence over the development of Naturalist style than any other school or group associated with it.
Oil on canvas - Toledo Museum of Art, Ohio
Hay Making (1877)
In this breakthrough work from 1877, Jules Bastien-Lepage depicts a young, fresh-faced woman, exhausted after a day's labor, seated at the edge of a hayfield, while a male companion dozes behind her; their arms and legs are slack and prostrated from work. The high horizon line of the piece allows the hay-field, with its pale yellow and silver tones, to dominate the composition in one sense, yet the faces and bodies are picked out with such precision that they immediately draw the eye. The accuracy of representation, and the apparent informality of the pose, lends the painting a photographic quality.
Born in 1848, the French painter Jules Bastien-Lepage was a contemporary of the second generation of Naturalist schools; yet he never associated himself with any group, and is more often spoken of as their predecessor than their peer, because of the enormous influence his work exerted over the development of Naturalist style. Like the Realist painters of the mid-19th century, Bastien-Lepage often depicted the working poor of his native region, Meuse in north-east France, but with works such as the Haymakers, he achieved a vivid, poetic intensity - partly through the precise rendering of the young woman's face - not matched by the exemplary works of French Realism: Gustave Courbet's The Stone Breakers (1849-50), for example. This reflects a deeper distinction between the two genres: whereas Realist painters, driven by an intense political awareness, focused on the social realities of labor, Naturalists such as Lepage were more centrally concerned with the integrity and accuracy of the visual composition, hence their greater emphasis on the landscapes enveloping their human subjects.
When he died in 1884 at the age of 36, Bastien-Lepage was already spoken of by the critics and artists of Naturalism with the kind of reverence generally reserved for figures of an older generation, and his work had already influenced the establishment of new Naturalist schools, such as the Glasgow Boys in Scotland. The display of Haymakers at the 1878 Salon was vital in establishing this reputation, and seemed to confirm Zola's assertion that Bastien-Lepage was "the grandson of Millet and Courbet", the heir of the Realist masters.
Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Mademoiselle Sarah Bernhardt (1879)
Jules Bastien-Lepage's famous portrait of Mademoiselle Sarah Bernhardt, the most eminent stage actress of her generation, depicts her in side-profile, holding a bronze statue of Orpheus created by Bernhardt two years earlier. Bernhardt had achieved some acclaim for her sculpture, and the subject of Orpheus, the lyric singer of Greek myth, was a favorite of hers. Wearing an elegant dress with prominent lace collar, the muted gold and silver tones of her clothing are echoed in the tonal palette of the background fabric. As a result, what Bastien-Lepage creates is a kind of Naturalistic take on celebrity portraiture, emphasizing the overall harmony of subject and background.
Bernhardt was a highly mythologized figure in her own day, known for taking on both male and female theatrical roles, and for her magisterial, highly stylized presence on stage. Suitably enough, Bastien-Lepage eschews any attempt at intimate identification of the individual - the side-profile seems to confirm her unknowability - focusing instead on the intricate detail and shading of the fabrics which envelop her, and on capturing her enigmatic, self-contained facial expression. The result is a highly visually accurate work which is nonetheless curiously impersonal, more of a rumination on the social phenomenon of celebrity than an empathetic treatment of an individual sitter.
Like his proto-Naturalist forebear John Constable, Bastien-Lepage made portraiture a key pillar of the Naturalist aesthetic. More than Constable's portraits however, Mademoiselle Sarah Bernhardt exemplifies an important, if sometimes sidelined, aspect of Naturalism's underpinning ideology: a belief not only in the formative relationship between the individual and the natural world, but also in the relationship between the individual and the society that molds them.
Oil on canvas - private collection
The Meeting (1884)
This painting shows a crowd of young boys gathering around to inspect a mysterious object held by the oldest of them, who faces away from the viewer. Their worn clothing and shabby surroundings suggest an urban, working-class setting; a number of the boys wear school smocks, while to the right, a young girl, also in school dress, walks away. Buildings dominate the upper frame, so that only a sliver of sky, almost the same color as the plasterwork, is visible beyond. As with much Naturalist genre painting, the apparent informality of the scene, and the visual precision of its rendering, indicate a debt to photography.
Marie Bashkirtseff was a Russian artist and writer - born in 1858 in what is now Ukraine - who moved to France at a young age and formed a close friendship with Jules Bastien-Lepage. Of her own art she once stated: "I say nothing of the fields because Bastien-Lepage reigns over them as a sovereign; but the streets, however, have not still had their ... Bastien". This statement neatly sums up her artistic credo, while paintings like The Meeting exemplify her ambition to bring Naturalist aesthetics into the urban space. As with Bastien-Lepage's scenes of hay making and potato gathering, the painting captures the scene with a certain detached objectivity, whilst at the same time conveying a keen empathy for its subjects. In this sense, the work represents one of the key achievements of Naturalism: to combine the sociological awareness of Realist painting with the atmosphere and pathos of the Romantics.
Bashkirtseff exhibited this work at the 1884 Salon, where it was critically acclaimed but unrewarded with a medal. Of this setback she wrote: "[t]here is nothing more to be done. I am a worthless creature, humiliated, finished." The apparent melodrama of the statement reflects her tragic life circumstances: at the time the painting was exhibited, she was twenty-five years old and fatally ill with tuberculosis, dying just a few months later. Bashkirsteff became posthumously famous for the journal that she had kept from the age of thirteen, published in France in 1887 and seen as a striking, sui generis work of non-fiction. But the compositional intelligence and sociological awareness conveyed in her artwork remains less well-known.
Oil on canvas - Musée d'Orsay, Paris
Pardon in Brittany (1884)
This painting depicts a traditional religious custom in Brittany, showing the citizens of a rural village proceeding around the church courtyard, praying for forgiveness. Dressed in traditional ceremonial attire but barefoot, most of the penitents carry long, lit tapers; some of them, like the older women to the lower left, are on their knees. This painting was first shown at the 1887 Paris Salon, to great acclaim, with visitors and critics commenting on the near-photographic clarity of the scene.
Pascal-Adolphe-Jean Dagnan-Bouveret was a leading French Naturalist painter, who often took as his subject-matter scenes of peasant life in Brittany. Deeply influenced by Bastien-Lepage, he brought a new emphasis on photographic exactitude to Naturalist painting, using photographs as both a memory aid and a compositional tool. Paintings like this one, which seem to present an on-the-scene snapshot, were in fact the result of a complex process of studio composition, the tableaux rendered artificially for artistic purposes. On the back of the painting are two tracings of photographs, indicating that older woman to the lower left is the mother of a friend of the painter, while the young woman above is the artist's wife.
Building his finished works from composites of photographic images, preliminary sketches, and drawings of studio models, Dagnan-Bouveret established a complex, synthetic compositional approach that prefigured the mixed-media practices of early-20th-century avant-gardes. It is all the more ironic then, that he became a dogged antagonist of contemporary developments in modern art, indicating the extent to which Naturalism itself had become a stylistically and ideologically dated artistic genre by around the close of the 19th century.
Oil on canvas - Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York